Saturday, 2 April 2016

Importance of Children's Anger

There’s an expression that I hear occasionally that sets off alarm bells for me. It’s the statement: “that child is the best in the world and never gets angry”. Frankly I’m sceptical when I hear that.

Everybody feels anger and gets angry from time to time. Anger is a perfectly healthy emotion. If a child never shows anger, then something is wrong - in my book. It’s likely that child is picking up subtle messages about anger from his or her environment. Maybe “we don’t get angry around here” – because we’re too mild for that. Or it might be too dangerous for the child to show theirs because mum or dad’s anger is so furious and intimidating.

So for the child who never shows anger – where does it go?

You know that statement you’ll often hear spoken about adults “He’s a saint” or “she’d never say boo to a goose”. Honestly, when I hear that, I'll feel for that person because they are unable to show their anger. They might even be unaware of it at this point. Unsurprisingly, they'll often have unexplained high blood pressure or might be on anti-depressive medication.

In the therapy room, I'll regularly meet people who have suicidal thoughts, especially men. Suicidality is much more common among our men. And often with suicidal clients, the following holds true: Anger is turned inwards, directed towards them-selves instead of outwards in a healthy and appropriate way. Suicide is the ultimate violent act - towards self.

For many, anger is out of awareness. It might come out passive-aggressively or is being turned inwards towards self. This can take the form of harsh or negative self-talk, poor self-care, lack of compassion towards self and others, or lack of recognition of, or connection with feelings of anger. When I hear suicidal thoughts, I’ll usually begin to work with anger. If anger is absent, we’ll be asking "where is it"? It is usually lurking somewhere.

Invariably, with every client at some point, I find myself saying the following words: “Anger is a healthy emotion. Yours is welcome in the room. The important thing about anger is that it needs to be expressed in a safe and healthy way – for you and those people around you”. In the therapy space, we will work gradually to raise awareness of anger – alongside finding healthy ways to manage and express it - outwardly and safely. Then therapy can evolve to explore the hurt and/or sadness that lies beneath the anger.

Anger is a healthy emotion. I’ll often refer clients to the book “The Healing Power of Anger” – either to read it or just to be mindful of the title. Our anger certainly deserves expression – both as adults and children.  As adults, we have a responsibility to express it in a safe and healthy manner. It is mature to process it ourselves at first. We never have the right to direct it physically (violently) at another person – neither adult nor child. It deserves exploration - for feelings that lie beneath and then perhaps appropriate expression.

A healthy home is not an anger-free zone. As parents, the onus is on us to manage and process our own anger. It's up to us to create a safe environment for our children to grow to regulate and express theirs. We need to be mindful that anger is a secondary emotion - meaning there's another feeling beneath it. Generally, where there's anger, there's hurt. Kids will often express that secondary emotion more readily than the primary one beneath - the hurt or sadness. Those who hurt will hurt others. Part of our job as parents is to help redirect them to the primary feeling. That's done over time & takes patience. Our homes need to be safe zones where anger is welcomed and this exploration is encouraged. It’s a necessary life skill.

Tom Evans is a dad, hubby, writer, counsellor and psychotherapist based in Midleton, Cork, Ireland.
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